BALTIMORE (AP) — When Bernard "Jack" Young automatically became Baltimore's acting mayor earlier this month, he emphasized that he'd act only as a "placeholder" for the elected mayor as she departed on a leave of absence amid an accelerating scandal focused on her self-published children's books.
But it's been more than three weeks since embattled Mayor Catherine Pugh slipped out of sight, and it appears the veteran City Council leader is settling in for a lengthy stint as Baltimore's No. 1 official. At a Wednesday news conference, Young suggested that the increasingly politically isolated Pugh could be in a no-win situation.
"Because of all of the groundswell of asking her to resign, I mean, it could be devastating for her. I wouldn't want to see her feelings hurt," Young said, speculating on the ramifications of any potential return by his fellow Democrat.
Citing deteriorating health from a pneumonia bout, Pugh announced her departure on the same day Maryland's governor asked for a criminal investigation of the lucrative sales of her "Healthy Holly" books to customers, including a major hospital network she once helped oversee as a state lawmaker and a health plan that does business with the city. The sales earned about $800,000 for her limited liability company.
Since then, the entire lineup of the current City Council, all Baltimore lawmakers in Maryland's House of Delegates, the influential Greater Baltimore Committee business group and others have called on the first-term mayor to resign. Maryland's chief accountant called Pugh's "self-dealing" arrangements to sell her books as "brazen, cartoonish corruption."
But even as Young said he would "hate to see what would the response be" to Pugh's possible reappearance in the mayor's office, he also stressed that the decision is up to her and there's nothing that can force her out amid investigations.
Only a conviction can trigger a Baltimore mayor's removal from office, according to City Solicitor Andre Davis and the state constitution. Baltimore's mayor-friendly City Charter currently provides no options for ousting its executive.
"The charter is utterly silent on how long the leave can last, exactly what the reasons are for a leave," Davis told reporters.
Still, Young has been very busy making his influence felt as interim mayor amid the gathering scandal, issuing numerous orders, making abundant appearances and switching out personnel.
On Wednesday, Young announced that he had fired three aides with close ties to Pugh, while three others remain on paid leave. One of the fired aides is Afra Vance-White, the city's director of external relations and co-owner, along with Pugh and City Comptroller Joan Pratt, of a recently shuttered clothing shop, 2 Chic Boutique.
Members of Pugh's communications staff have said repeatedly that she intends to return to City Hall when she is feeling better, but have declined to provide any timetable.
As multiple investigations into the mayor's books ramp up, political analysts say Pugh's biggest bargaining chip at the negotiating table is her refusal to resign in a city accustomed to a high-drama, insular political culture.
Pugh came to office in late 2016 after edging out ex-Mayor Sheila Dixon, who spent much of her tenure fighting corruption charges before being forced to depart office in 2010 as part of a plea deal connected to the misappropriation of about $500 in gift cards meant for needy families.
While the accusations have certainly cast a shadow over Pugh, she has not been indicted for any crime, and it is unclear how long a criminal investigation will take. Earlier this month, her lawyer, Steven Silverman, said the mayor looks forward to cooperating with the state prosecutor's probe and will provide "as much information as possible to put this matter to rest."
Pugh would certainly face a bruising 2020 Democratic primary if she were to return and run for reelection. Many political observers believe she would never again be able to wield power effectively due to the scandal.
"I call it juvenile because it's so unbelievably unaware, apparently, of the damage that this was going to wreak on her career," said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Follow McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd